How men and women can promote women’s leadership in higher education

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“How men and women can promote women’s leadership in higher education” was originally published as “Concrete advice on how men and women can promote women’s leadership in higher education” in the November 2016 issue of Connections, as part of the regular feature “Fair Comment”.

There are pitifully few women in higher education leadership positions across the Commonwealth. Whether this situation is due to active hostility to women in senior positions or benign indifference, we need vigorous and visible action to generate change.

Since bold change initiatives are far more likely to succeed if they are top-driven, here is a checklist for institutional leaders who want to make a difference.

  1. Set targets for departments and faculties, and monitor progress towards achieving them.
  2. Ensure departments, faculties and senior administrators actively search for female talent. Some research has shown that females apply less often for promotion and have circumscribed notions of career advancement. Set an example by encouraging them to advance.
  3. Take care over the composition of selection and promotion committees. Prejudice and discrimination is often subtle. A male-dominated selection or promotion committee may not be discriminatory per se, but the female candidates may feel that it is.
  4. Nominate women to important and influential committees and boards – not only within the institution, but nationally and internationally. Women’s views need to be actively canvassed and properly represented. Never underestimate the importance of role models, and seek them out wherever possible.
  5. Nurture the top female students (especially the senior and post-graduate students). They need to understand that academia is a sympathetic and supportive career option, conducive to their becoming future leaders.
  6. Provide targeted career guidance to female staff. Although universities can’t hope to compete with the kinds of salaries and perks on offer in the private sector, greater support and planning for women’s career tracks can allow prospects and prestige to outweigh the lure of commercial offers.
  7. Ensure adequate Internet access for all academic staff. Internet access is an educational imperative, and inadequate access can limit not only academics’ scholarly careers but also their knowledge of and access to research and other funding that would build their CVs.
  8. Provide mentoring programmes for female staff. Mentoring is a powerful way of supporting individuals struggling to cope with conflicting demands and to develop the confidence, knowledge and skills for bettering themselves in their work and lives generally.
  9. Provide child-care facilities on campus.
  10. Establish policies and procedures for dealing with sexual harassment. These need to be widely publicised (especially to new students and staff) and applied with zero tolerance. Country statistics vary, but we know that across the world, one in three women will experience either rape or violent assault. The chance of such experiences is higher during women’s child-bearing years, when they will be trying to further their education and build a career.
  11. Provide counselling services for female staff and students. These might include rape crisis lines as well as other forms of support for people dealing with trauma.
  12. Regularly organise “diversity workshops.” We know that women and men often work from different assumptions, usually unspoken. Actively seek to change the quality of the debate and encourage the kind of dialogue that crosses the gender divide. In the process, begin to change attitudes, behaviours and cultures that militate against women achieving equality of opportunity in academia.

Those of us working in higher education have an important mission that contains a significant moral purpose. We must harness all relevant talent and not rest until we hold this mission to the highest standards of equity.

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